Under the Influence
When we first started playing," Ben Gun remembers, "we started getting labeled 'stoner rock,' and we were all kind of like, 'We don't want to be labeled stoner rock. We're not really stoner rock.'"
Stoner rock is a contemptible term created to describe a no-frills, anachronistic sound that emerged in the '90s. While Under the Drone is surveying the same arid terrain once inhabited by the genre's sludgy forebears -- Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer and Hawkwind -- and later explored by Masters of Reality, Kyuss and Fu Manchu, the tag is really more befitting of Jerry Garcia and the multitudinous dope-smoking noodlers he spawned.
"Yeah, we get a lot of shit from our buddies who are total stoners," Gun says with a laugh. "They're like, 'Well, you guys gotta get stoned all the time to be stoner rock.' They know I don't get stoned all the time."
Even though Gun is reluctant to embrace the designation, he admits that the bottom-heavy aesthetic of those seminal acts was exactly what he and Drone's co-founder, guitarist Justin Delz, were aiming for when they hooked up in 2001. "We loved the low tones of Kyuss, Beaver and Fu Manchu and the simplicity of the songs," he reveals. "You know, like steady rock and roll, almost like ZZ Top. So when we first started writing, we were trying to stick towards that. But usually when I write lyrics, things just get out of control and start getting real heavy, and the vocals get screamy and stuff. I think that's where a lot of metal that I love just comes out. To me, when I listen to us now, I don't think we're stoner rock at all. I think we're like screamy, punk rock and roll."
"It's not a bad thing," he adds. "But for some reason, if you're labeled stoner rock, people automatically discount you. Because the best stoner-rock bands ever, like Kyuss -- you just can't beat 'em. It's like you're in a genre where there's already a master."
Under the Drone's foundation may have been poured by Josh Homme and company, but Gun and his cohorts -- Delz and the Harper brothers, bassist Dave and drummer Mike -- have made striking renovations to its fuzz-laden structure. On Keep It Shred, the act's latest disc, Gun's vocals swing effortlessly between melodious croons and menacing, vein-popping screams, as he and Delz churn out muscular, primordial riffs that are closer to the wah-inflected, Southern-fried psychedelia of Down and Corrosion of Conformity.
"That's what I'm way more into," says Gun. "That's what I try to put into the music almost every time. Like, a lot of the riffs that I write, I don't really even like playing them unless they're like bendy, Southern riffs."
Gun wasn't always a Southern man, though. A child of divorce, he rolled around Evergreen, Broomfield and Arvada on a skateboard, listening to the Circle Jerks, Danzig, the Misfits and the Dead Kennedys. Eventually he settled in Lakewood and went to high school in Wheat Ridge, where he met Delz. The Harper brothers are also Farmers, though the foursome didn't converge until 2003, when Mike headed off to Colorado State University and started playing with Delz and Gun. Soon the trio enlisted Mike's younger brother on bass.
On Shred, the fraternal interplay is unmistakable. "I've been playing with my brother pretty much my whole life," says Dave, who's been performing since he was thirteen. "I haven't been in a band without him. We can jam all night if we want to, just making shit up on the spot. So when it comes to writing songs, we're always pretty much locked in, we've been playing for so long together."
Under the Drone developed the same chemistry. Soon after the lineup came together, the band entered the studio to record its debut, an eponymous five-song EP. Gun, a tattoo artist who slings ink at Bound by Design, had bartered for studio time at Toys for Noise, a recording facility known mostly for its hip-hop productions. After the disc was finished, Drone hit the West Coast for two solid weeks of touring. Being on the road for the first time tested the members' resolve but ultimately cemented their bond -- following a high-speed brawl.
"We were driving to Vegas for a show," Dave recalls. "In the middle of the desert, a giant fight broke out. I was driving, so I was trying not to throw any punches, just stiff-arming people's faces and stuff and trying to stay in the middle of the road. We didn't pull over. It was pretty much an inside-the-car fight. It was little out of control. I thought I was going to die."
"Me and Justin were drunk," Gun explains. "I was so drunk, I didn't even have my eyes open."
"Yeah, he wakes up," Dave continues, "and he's like, 'How'd I get all these welts on my face?' It was like, 'Justin punched you fifteen times last night!'"
The squabble was ostensibly over a skort-clad female in Santee, California, who'd apparently taken more of a liking to Gun than to Delz. From the sound of it, though, demon alcohol also played a pretty pivotal role. And damned if the bastard didn't show up again this past holiday season. "We were playing a show at Herman's Hideaway for their Christmas party, and we got trashed," remembers Gun. "Man, we got really drunk. We used to play pretty much every show like that, just trashed."
"We broke a lot of stuff at Herman's," Dave confesses. "They weren't too happy with us."
"I was smashing my guitar all over the place," Gun adds. "Smashing their mikes and shit. That was a pretty crazy show. It was really fun, though. It was like a tribute to Dimebag Darrell, the week after he died. Something about it, being that drunk, just kind of released animals in us. We partied like animals that night. I broke my favorite, oldest guitar, this old 1980s American Strat I had.
"Now that I look back, it was worth it," he concludes, "That's rock and roll, you know what I mean?"
As Dave and Gun spin yarns over beers, it's hard to believe that these two laid-back musicians have any destructive tendencies. It's even tougher when you hear them discuss their new album, with artwork that resembles a black-light poster from the '70s and a name conceived with all the hey-bro stoner logic of Jeff Spicoli.
"That type of imagery really appealed to me when I was younger, when I skateboarded," says Gun, who created the graphics. "It looks like an old Powell-Peralta design, kind of gritty."
"It's got all the elements of keeping it shred, too," adds Dave. "Skulls, fire, eyeballs, wings, devil signs -- it's pretty much got everything you want. It's like a grab bag."
And what, exactly, is "keeping it shred"?
"It's our life philosophy," says Gun. "'Keep it shred' just means, like, what it says, man. You know, keep partying. We would say that to each other all the time. So we were like, 'Let's name the album that.'"
The band's love of revelry is matched only by its fondness for vintage gear. "We just love the tone of it, man," Gun explains. "All tube gain and amps. You just get more of a Southern, stoner-rock tone from them. And the thing is, too, those old amps, when you run its natural gain, you get so much more tone, better gain than if you were to go through any newer amp with a pedal." Fortunately, when it came time to record Keep It Shred, the act found a kindred spirit in Module Overload's Jamie "Hell Yeah" Hillyer.
"Out of anybody in this town, you can just tell he cares the most about this kind of music," Gun declares. "Low-end guitar, vintage gain, heavier sound. He understands tube-amped, full-toned sound. And the attitude of the music, where it's influenced by stoner rock and Southern rock and has that swagger. You could just tell that he cares about the music. He's got old, vintage pre-amps. He wants that sound. We almost threw it on analog, but it took out a lot of the tone, so we decided not to."
Good call. The recording sounds warm, organic and, well, vintage -- the way classic albums used to sound. There's none of that glossy, synthetic, ProTools digital sheen that dominates most releases these days. With Shred, Under the Drone has raised the bar for Denver's stoner-rock community -- which includes such stellar, like-minded acts as Black Lamb, Audio Dream Sister and Core of the Earth. This is the kind of shit that makes you wanna floor it in your Camaro with all the windows down.
"You can get stoned to it, too," offers Gun. "We should put that disclaimer on the CD: 'Feel free to get stoned to this.'"
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